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Covia CEO Questions FirstNet Conventional Wisdom on LMR, LTE

Thursday, August 22, 2013

COMMUNICATIONS DAILY—6 THURSDAY, AUGUST 22, 2013 ANAHEIM, Calif. — The growing conventional wisdom that FirstNet should not replace but augment land mobile radio (LMR) misses the mark, one tech CEO argued in an interview. “I will say flat-out that [of the] 90-something percent of the voice needs that public safety has, our platform can do on commercial cellular networks, LTE and even 3G — large, large fraction of what public safety needs, we can do it today,” Covia Labs CEO David Kahn told us at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials meeting this week. “Given that companies, and it’s not just Covia Labs, are making tremendous progress on voice systems over LTE that are able to do what public safety needs a very large fraction [of the time], why is FirstNet saying we’re not going to be a voice network?”

FirstNet officials have been adamant that its proposed network is not expected to deliver missioncritical voice, only video and data. “What we’re going to do with broadband right now is considered an ‘and’ to land mobile radio, so think of land mobile radio and broadband,” FirstNet Deputy General Manager T.J. Kennedy, a former Raytheon executive and first responder, told us. “Some people in the past have looked at it as land mobile radio or VoLTE [voice over LTE].” He called the perspective wrong for today. “With bits and bytes over broadband, it could be voice, it could be video, it could be data, it’s all sorts of modalities of information that could be coming across that. Whatever those services are we provide in the early stages of FirstNet and as it progresses, voice is going to be one of those things but it’s not about a mission-critical voice replacement for LMR, which I think is where a lot of the political debate has gone around.”

Covia Labs is a five-year-old tech company based in Mountain View, Calif. It has a software platform known as the Connector that Kahn compared to Java, calling it a run-time engine where apps can simultaneously run on many devices. “The metaphor I use is like the Borg,” he said, alluding to Star Trek. When connectivity problems happen, the Covia software will have certain devices shut off LTE, communicate with each other via Wi-Fi and tap an additional device as the uplink: “You have to have awareness of all the devices to know it’s happening and you have to be able to coordinate” which phones to adjust, he said. The Covia software represents 10 years of work and roughly $30 million of investment, Kahn estimated. The system allows one-to-many communication, the desired latencies and avoids the problem of cell tower overloading, he said.

“I honestly believe that could become the core security engine and the core app engine for FirstNet,” Kahn said. But he called Covia “a little voice” and speculated that a larger company like Raytheon or Motorola might more forcefully advance such a platform. Yet he has had “a fair amount of conversations” with California-based FirstNet technical staff and met with FirstNet General Manager Bill D’Agostino and board member Sue Swenson, he said. Covia has responded to certain of FirstNet’s recent requests for information, collaborating with Raytheon and Cassidian on one. “When Bill talks about the core services they’re going to provide, it sounds an awful lot like the messaging we’ve been doing for several years, that it’s starting maybe to be heard.”

There’s no easy substitute for power, though, Kahn added. There’s no way a 0.6-watt LTE transmitter will have “the punch” of a 6-watt land-mobile radio — 10 times the power is “going to make a difference” if a person tries to communicate in the sub-basement of a building in a crowded urban area, he said. But that doesn’t hurt his suspicions: “When you come to real-world situations with the current number of towers that they actually have for LMR and 6-watt transmitters, and you come to the number of LTE towers that Verizon has,” Kahn said, “I suspect that the likelihood that an LTE phone on Verizon is going to have a connection is within a gnat’s eyelash of what LMR is providing.”

“Mission-critical voice features and redundancy are not yet included in the LTE standard,” insisted Motorola Solutions Director-Government and Public Safety Markets Thomas Miller in an Urgent Communications op-ed last week (http://bit.ly/15O9FZx). “LTE ultimately will provide new voice capabilities, while public safety will continue to depend on private LMR systems for mission-critical voice for years to come.” Miller praised the reliable, mission-critical voice of the Part 25 systems of LMR but advocated moving toward “multi-network, mission-critical operating environments that include public-safety LTE as a new transport network on top of existing P25 networks, dispatch console systems, and data systems.” Raytheon touted a similar product Monday in a press release (http://bit.ly/18Jt2qN) centered on FirstNet and the APCO meeting. “INTEROP-7000 enables police, fire and rescue professionals to use commercial smartphones and tablets integrated with existing communications equipment, such as land mobile radios,” Raytheon said. Kahn told us he worries this integration will be too expensive for public safety. He imagined solutions that don’t require P25 systems or require them with less power and less expense, noting such a possibility would involve “goring some vested interests.” TeleCommunications Systems Chief Marketing Officer Timothy Lorello told APCO members Tuesday that VoLTE will face 911 operators in big, new ways (CD Aug. 21 p21).

Harris County, Texas, developed its own public safety broadband network and urged first responders to hold on to their land mobile radios. Todd Early, deputy assistant director at the Texas Department of Public Safety, believes mission-critical voice capability “is not there in LTE,” he said on a Tuesday APCO panel. “Eventually it will happen — maybe 5, 10, 12 years.” The Texas network augments but doesn’t replace the radios, he said. At a Wednesday town hall meeting, FirstNet Board Chairman Sam Ginn said the network won’t offer mission-critical voice in the short term but perhaps will eventually. “It’s not our ambition to replace existing systems,” Ginn said. “Ultimately the market will decide.” Board member Jeff Johnson spoke at the same event and suggested there will be two phases of adoption and described an “evolution to Voice over LTE” that will happen on the FirstNet network. But full conversion will only happen when first responders reach for the FirstNet connection and do not imagine needing anything else.

Kahn also slammed the way standards can obstruct innovation. “The problem with standardsbased systems is they prevent iterating,” he said. “It takes tens of years generally to get standards to change.” He recalled his entry into public safety four years ago when public safety said they would press for modification of VoLTE standards to meet the needs of public safety. “Four years later, they’re still starting to talk about introducing the ideas of public safety changes into Voice Over LTE,” Kahn said. “If we have to wait for stuff like that to happen, it’s never going to be happening.”

Covia is unwilling to give up intellectual property rights to its Connector system but would be willing to have its source code freely available and offer an “incredibly low or approaching zero level of cost” to make it accessible for public safety, Kahn said of possible practical implications. Covia works with the Defense Department now, which has more challenging needs than public safety, he said. “Before public safety needs it, I’m quite confident the platform is going to be [federal information processing standard]- certified,” he said, noting Covia is far along in the certification process with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Kennedy pointed out that cops have balanced multiple devices already, making use of LMR as well as cellphones. He’s familiar with Covia, he said. “I believe there’s more than one way to get there,” he said, stressing the value in multiple options — LMR in addition to LTE. “Agencies will determine that on a local basis of how they adopt different pieces of that, but to me, as long as it’s an ‘and,’ I don’t think anyone has an argument against ‘and.’” — John Hendel (jhendel@warren-news.com)

Reproduced by permission of Warren Communications News, Inc., 800-771-9202, www.warren.news.com.